The Windows on the World wine list (with my edit scribbles) from January 5, 2001–the 2nd to last time I went there to do a training.
With so much talk among wine waiters on the Guild of Sommeliers website about how to handle a big wine list, I decided to talk about it because whether you are the waiter or the waited on, it can be mighty intimidating to be faced with hundreds or even thousands of selections. Here are some suggestions based on my experience at Windows on the World, the unparalleled wine restaurant on top of New York City’s World Trade Center, where many somm’s including me cut their teeth. I miss the people we lost every day, treasure the memories, and here will share a few tips I learned while working there:
- Have an alternative: the “One-Page Wine List” – If you are the restaurateur, I implore you to offer a one-pager like you see above left. Print it on standard card stock, whites/bubbles/roses on one side, reds on the other, about 70 total selections in a readable (critical) font size, in a customer-friendly price range. We arranged this one by varietal which is comfortable for many guests. But, the benefits of this are huge: for the guest, they immediately see wine selections available that aren’t scary–without having to open the “book” and attract the sommelier’s attention (which inspires performance anxiety–‘oh no, I have to “talk wine”?’ in some). Every guest gets a copy, and the immediate, subtle suggestion to order a bottle or wine by the glass. You wouldn’t just deliver one food menu per table. Why do that with wine? And certainly, offering everyone a copy of the “tome” needlessly wastes paper. One per table ensures it will end up in the hands of whomever wants to go deep in your wine selection. For the budding wine waiter, the One-Pager is your go-to, and here’s why:
- Study-up, and Train-up your Team, on the One-Pager’s Wines – This is a small number that you can research and cover in a few sessions of research and few weeks of pre-meals with your staff. And, the customer-friendly price range is the right place to start your wine suggestions with virtually every table. Here’s what I mean:
- A customer-friendly price range should track with your highest main course prices – If you’ve got $15-$25 pastas and $18-$30 mains, offering a nice selection of wines in the $25-$40 price range feels like ordering one additional main course–an easier decision than instantly doubling or tripling the likely final bill because decent wines start at $65 or more. I realize that in big cities at top tables, bottles under $100 are almost nonexistent, it’s part of the price of entry to a hotspot, and in line with the competition. I still hate it, though, when the only thing sub-$100 is a rustic Corsican red. Geez.
- Point to the price – Whether you are the customer or the server, this is awesome sign language. As the customer I can point to the $28 wine’s price and say, “How is this Rioja?” and my server, watching where my finger is pointed, knows (at least I hope) not to try to trade me up to the $50 Cab. That’s a loser move because a) I’ve made my budget known and b) you should not have crap wine in the bargain section. It’s just not necessary with so much great wine out there. As the server I can assess your budget and immediately put you at ease by introducing you to a really cool deal, if that’s what you want. The big spenders will be more than confident to make that known: “We’d actually like to splurge; or, We love Opus One.” The average customer will be so thrilled that you validated affordable wine, they’ll probably come back soon. Especially if your bargain bottlings are the unsung heros and gems that most people only get turned on to by someone who knows more than they do about wine. That’s you. And you’re learning more every day.
Will this help you with the depth in your Bordeaux or Napa Cab section? No, that takes reading and keeping notes. But at least the homework’s fun!